Debut Middle Grade Novel Combines Author’s West Indian Heritage & Caribbean Folklore

Author Lisa Stringfellow

We’re seeing an alarming increase in the number of books being banned in parts of the country by leaders who are scared of teaching children about history, racism, sexuality and how they relate to us today. The best way we as a platform can help pushback on this fear-mongering is to use our little corner of the internet to amplify and promote authors and their work.

Today we are excited to publish a featured interview with middle grade fiction author Lisa Stringfellow, whose debut book ‘A Comb of Wishes’ is set to be released on Feb 8, 2022. Lisa is an author you will want to keep on your radar, as her work is already winning awards in its manuscript phase from the children’s literature world! She received the inaugural Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Manuscript Award in 2019 for an earlier draft of ‘A Comb of Wishes’.

Lisa writes middle grade fiction and has a not-so-secret fondness for fantasy with a dark twist. Growing up, she was a voracious reader, and books took her to places where her imagination could thrive. She writes for her twelve-year-old self, the kid waiting to be the brown-skinned hero of an adventure, off saving the world. Lisa’s work often reflects her West Indian and Black southern heritage.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lisa started her own Little Free Library, which she named Little Free KidLit Library. The free library is located in her local neighborhood of Hyde Park, Boston, and each shingle of the roof features the book cover of a BIPOC author.

Informed by Caribbean culture and folklore, Lisa’s forthcoming novel follows Kela, a girl learning to cope with her beloved mother’s death and has a tough choice to make when she is granted a wish. When Kela and her friend Lissy stumble across an ancient-looking comb in a coral cave, Kela can’t help but bring home her very own found treasure. Far away, deep in the cold ocean, the mermaid Ophidia can feel that her comb has been taken. And despite her hatred of all humans, her magic requires that she make a bargain: the comb in exchange for a wish, but getting what she wants most comes at an unexpected price. 

Against the backdrop of Caribbean culture, this magical middle-grade sweeps readers away in a fantasy adventure starring protagonists of color. It is a realistic and powerful portrayal of grief, providing a comforting message for young readers. 

Although she is getting ready to release ‘A Comb of Wishes’ in early 2022, Lisa has already signed on to write a second novel for Quill Tree publishers. We had the chance to steal some moments of her free time to ask her about her writing inspiration and why she is passionate about centering young protagonists of color in her stories.

Congrats on the release of your debut novel! Given your background in teaching and literature communities, does it feel like releasing a book was always on the cards for you?

Beginning my career as an author feels similar to beginning as a teacher. As a child, I enjoyed being with younger children and often was put in charge of my brother and cousins. I had always loved reading and writing. Despite this, I never considered teaching as a career until I was out of college. Once I was in the classroom, I wondered, “Why didn’t I choose this path earlier?”

Being an author feels that way to me too. I’ve read and shared books for many years as a teacher, and I had dabbled in writing, but it wasn’t until I returned to graduate school that I thought I should pursue writing for children. Once I began my publication journey, I had the same wonder as before. “Why hadn’t I started this earlier?”

How did the story for “A Comb of Wishes” come about? 

My inspiration for this story came from thinking about two middle grade books I loved, ‘The Tale of Emily Windsnap’ by Liz Kessler and ‘Coraline’ by Neil Gaiman. I thought it would be interesting to write a somewhat scary mermaid story, and I had never read a story set in the Caribbean or that had a West Indian protagonist. This was before books like ‘The Jumbies’ by Tracy Baptiste or ‘Josephine Against the Sea’ by Shakirah Bourne had been published. 12-year-old me would have loved stories like these, so I set out to write one.

You are a huge fan of magic and fantasy novels, which has been incorporated into this book. Can you tell us more about your love of this genre? 

I was a voracious reader in elementary and middle school and practically lived in my school and local libraries. Books were comforting and inspiring. I especially loved fantasies like ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, and other stories that involve magic and mystery. When I was older, I discovered books like Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Dragonrider of Pern’ series and retellings of the stories of Merlin and King Arthur. What I think I love best about the genre is the wild possibility. Fantasy asks us to imagine what the world might be like if magic was possible or magical creatures existed. But even though fantastic and magical things happen, the stories are about people and the choices they make. 

You have also incorporated a lot of imagery and history from your West Indian heritage. Why was it important to you to include this? 

My family is important to me and as writers, we often draw on what we know. When I decided to write a mermaid story, it was natural for me to set it in the Caribbean. It made sense that a story about the sea would revolve around the islands and I wanted the richness of the setting and culture to almost feel like a character in itself. Kela lives in a loving community that has its own history and traditions. I wanted to give readers a glimpse of that and also affirm and provide a needed mirror for kids who have Caribbean heritage.

We’re seeing a huge push to promote and create more books featuring protagonists of color, especially young women of color. Why is it vital for young kids of color to see themselves and their heritage reflected in the stories they read? 

Many people refer to the importance of books that serve as “windows and mirrors” for children. That metaphor was coined by children’s literature scholar Dr. Rudine Sims and it’s a true need. Dr. Bishop explains, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

Absence sends as powerful a message as presence. Not seeing yourself in books, especially as a protagonist who is off having amazing adventures, can make a child feel that those types of stories are not for them. They absolutely are! I’m heartened to see so many more books being written and published by Black creators and that feature strong Black girls. All children should have that gift of possibility, the gift that they can imagine themselves as anyone and anything.

Your main character Kela also has to deal with the grief of losing her mother. How can your book help parents or teachers talk to children about important topics like this? 

Grief is a human emotion that we all experience. Books can be a safe way for children to see and process those feelings. My main character tries to act “normal” to keep her father from worrying but she struggles with her sadness and withdraws from her best friend Lissy. The adults in her life support her by keeping the lines of communication open and giving her time and space. Parents and teachers can use the book to foster healthy conversations about death and loss and remind children that the ones who have left us always stay in our hearts.

What can you tell us about your second novel already in the works? And will it be a continuation of Kela’s story from “A Comb of Wishes”? 

I don’t plan to continue Kela’s story right now, but I’m currently working on my second book which will be another stand-alone fantasy novel. I like to call it my “princess in a tower” story, but it won’t be like other fairy tales readers might imagine.

The advice often given to aspiring writers is “write what you know”. What would your advice be?

My advice would be to write the story that only you can tell. Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I would extend that to encourage writers to look for those stories that are uniquely theirs to tell and t allow them to share a piece of themselves with the world.

You can get to know more of Lisa Stringfellow’s work by visiting her website, and pre-order ‘A Comb of Wishes’ HERE.

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